Check your privilege! Part 2

In my last post, I discussed white privilege and how to find out if you have it. Now I want to turn to another kind of privilege, one that is particularly relevant to the atheist community right now. I have already talked about the many recent examples of sexism and misogyny that have dogged atheism recently. Now I would like to talk about sexism in the light of male privilege. Before getting into the details of male privilege, I would like to highlight a recent issue: the one that gave rise to Atheism+.

When Jen McCreight said

I don’t feel safe as a woman in this community – and I feel less safe than I do as a woman in science, or a woman in gaming, or hell, as a woman walking down the fucking sidewalk

a whole can of worms opened up. Many people understood, sympathized, or empathized with Jen’s statement. Other people blew up, arguing that this was a ridiculous statement: how is it possible not to be safer at a convention – in a room full of people – than walking down the street? Another class of response was to ask for evidence: what is the evidence that you are safer on the street than at a con? The latter two types of response are missing the point. Jen did not claim that as a woman she is safer on the street than at a con; this would have been a claim that could be supported or refuted with evidence from research on the relative frequency of assaults on women in different settings. Neither did she claim that as Jen McCreight she is safer on the street than at a con. I doubt there is any published research on this question, but Jen would be able to offer up data regarding all the times she has been attacked in different settings. Of course, this may not satisfy the most hyper-skeptical among us as these would be anecdotal data. But why am I even making the distinction between Jen-as-a-woman and Jen-as-Jen-McCreight? This distinction is relevant because, in the context of a public atheist/skeptic event, she is not just one of many women walking around. She is a woman who has

“received sexual invitations from strangers around the country”,

who has been

“repeatedly told I can never speak out against people objectifying or sexually harassing me because a joke about my boobs was eternal “consent”,

who has received

“hundreds of comments accusing me being a man-hating, castrating, humorless, ugly, overreacting harpy”,

who has

“become used to being called a cunt or having people threaten to contact my employers because a feminist can’t be a good scientist.”

In short, she is a public figure in the atheist/skeptical/freethought community who has received many threats of violence. Given this, I can see how Jen may feel less safe in an environment where there is a chance that there are a few individuals who recognize her by sight and wish her ill than in an environment where she is anonymous. This does not seem irrational.

I now want to stress that her claim was not that she is less safe in the atheist community than on the sidewalk, but that she feels less safe in the atheist community than on the sidewalk. This claim does not belong in the class of claims that require, or can be supported or refuted by, evidence. If I were to say “I have a headache” or “I feel sad”, no-one would ask me to provide supporting evidence. People would be happy to accept these statements without challenging the truth-status of these claims. Why? First, because they of little consequence, which I do agree is not true of Jen’s claim. Second, because they are my subjective feelings, and we are typically happy to allow that people have subjective experiences that may not be true for the rest of us at this time, and this second reason is true of Jen’s claim. The key difference, however, is that when I talk of headaches or sadness, others can easily simulate what it feels like to be me because they have probably experienced both of these feelings themselves at many different times in their lives. However, it is not the case – and I am happy that it is not the case – that all of us have felt threatened in the way that Jen describes. This is because we have not been subjected to the same abuse and threats that she has. This makes it potentially harder to simulate what it feels like to be Jen. People who have received threats and have been in public spaces in which those who have issued the threats may also be present will probably have a much easier time simulating what it feels like to be Jen.

All of this talk of phenomenology, alluded to in my last post, is essentially the problem of other minds. If I want to be hyper-skeptical, I can make the argument that I have no way of knowing that other people (or animals) have thoughts, feelings, or any kind of conscious experience that is in any way similar to what I experience.

Given the subjective nature of the claim of feeling less safe, adducing the threats received by Jen is not even necessary for accepting that her feelings regarding specific places or situations may differ from other people’s. It is quite possible that Jen could feel safer in one situation than another even if she were not well-known to the atheist community and had not been the recipient of harassment.

The example I have discussed is a specific case of a more general problem: empathizing with others, or – if empathy is not possible because one has no similar experiences to draw upon – accepting the idea that different people have different experiences. That was the point of the White Privilege Pop Quiz, and it is also the point of Barry Deutsch’sMale Privilege Checklist:

1. My odds of being hired for a job, when competing against female applicants, are probably skewed in my favor. The more prestigious the job, the larger the odds are skewed.

2. I can be confident that my co-workers won’t think I got my job because of my sex – even though that might be true.

3. If I am never promoted, it’s not because of my sex.

4. If I fail in my job or career, I can feel sure this won’t be seen as a black mark against my entire sex’s capabilities.

5. I am far less likely to face sexual harassment at work than my female co-workers are.

6. If I do the same task as a woman, and if the measurement is at all subjective, chances are people will think I did a better job.

7. If I’m a teen or adult, and if I can stay out of prison, my odds of being raped are relatively low.

8. On average, I am taught to fear walking alone after dark in average public spaces much less than my female counterparts are.

9. If I choose not to have children, my masculinity will not be called into question.

10. If I have children but do not provide primary care for them, my masculinity will not be called into question.

11. If I have children and provide primary care for them, I’ll be praised for extraordinary parenting if I’m even marginally competent.

12. If I have children and a career, no one will think I’m selfish for not staying at home.

13. If I seek political office, my relationship with my children, or who I hire to take care of them, will probably not be scrutinized by the press.

14. My elected representatives are mostly people of my own sex. The more prestigious and powerful the elected position, the more this is true.

15. When I ask to see “the person in charge,” odds are I will face a person of my own sex. The higher-up in the organization the person is, the surer I can be.

16. As a child, chances are I was encouraged to be more active and outgoing than my sisters.

17. As a child, I could choose from an almost infinite variety of children’s media featuring positive, active, non-stereotyped heroes of my own sex. I never had to look for it; male protagonists were (and are) the default.

18. As a child, chances are I got more teacher attention than girls who raised their hands just as often.

19. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether or not it has sexist overtones.

20. I can turn on the television or glance at the front page of the newspaper and see people of my own sex widely represented.

21. If I’m careless with my financial affairs it won’t be attributed to my sex.

22. If I’m careless with my driving it won’t be attributed to my sex.

23. I can speak in public to a large group without putting my sex on trial.

24. Even if I sleep with a lot of women, there is no chance that I will be seriously labeled a “slut,” nor is there any male counterpart to “slut-bashing.”

25. I do not have to worry about the message my wardrobe sends about my sexual availability.

26. My clothing is typically less expensive and better-constructed than women’s clothing for the same social status. While I have fewer options, my clothes will probably fit better than a woman’s without tailoring.

27. The grooming regimen expected of me is relatively cheap and consumes little time.

28. If I buy a new car, chances are I’ll be offered a better price than a woman buying the same car.

29. If I’m not conventionally attractive, the disadvantages are relatively small and easy to ignore.

30. I can be loud with no fear of being called a shrew. I can be aggressive with no fear of being called a bitch.

31. I can ask for legal protection from violence that happens mostly to men without being seen as a selfish special interest, since that kind of violence is called “crime” and is a general social concern. (Violence that happens mostly to women is usually called “domestic violence” or “acquaintance rape,” and is seen as a special interest issue.)

32. I can be confident that the ordinary language of day-to-day existence will always include my sex. “All men are created equal,” mailman, chairman, freshman, he.

33. My ability to make important decisions and my capability in general will never be questioned depending on what time of the month it is.

34. I will never be expected to change my name upon marriage or questioned if I don’t change my name.

35. The decision to hire me will not be based on assumptions about whether or not I might choose to have a family sometime soon.

36. Every major religion in the world is led primarily by people of my own sex. Even God, in most major religions, is pictured as male.

37. Most major religions argue that I should be the head of my household, while my wife and children should be subservient to me.

38. If I have a wife or live-in girlfriend, chances are we’ll divide up household chores so that she does most of the labor, and in particular the most repetitive and unrewarding tasks.

39. If I have children with my girlfriend or wife, I can expect her to do most of the basic childcare such as changing diapers and feeding.

40. If I have children with my wife or girlfriend, and it turns out that one of us needs to make career sacrifices to raise the kids, chances are we’ll both assume the career sacrificed should be hers.

41. Assuming I am heterosexual, magazines, billboards, television, movies, pornography, and virtually all of media is filled with images of scantily-clad women intended to appeal to me sexually. Such images of men exist, but are rarer.

42. In general, I am under much less pressure to be thin than my female counterparts are. If I am fat, I probably suffer fewer social and economic consequences for being fat than fat women do.

43. If I am heterosexual, it’s incredibly unlikely that I’ll ever be beaten up by a spouse or lover.

44. Complete strangers generally do not walk up to me on the street and tell me to “smile.”

45. Sexual harassment on the street virtually never happens to me. I do not need to plot my movements through public space in order to avoid being sexually harassed, or to mitigate sexual harassment.

45. On average, I am not interrupted by women as often as women are interrupted by men.

46. I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege.

I agree with the vast majority of these statements. As with the White Privilege test, the point isn’t that I am a sexist, or that I can choose not to have this privilege. The point is that I should now be aware that I have male privilege, and have some minimal idea about what women may experience. I still do not know what it is like to be a woman, but I am aware that the phenomenology of being a woman is not the same as the phenomenology of being a man.

You may be a woman who does not agree that all of the statements on the list are representative of your experiences, but that does not mean that this is true for all women. Jen McCreight recently blogged about Richard Dawkins retweeting the following:

I’m a woman & an atheist blogger, & never experienced sexist abuse from fellow atheists. Maybe because I don’t assume they’re misogynists?

Jen then quotes a nice critique:

From Veronica at Purple NoiZe:

Good for you Lucy. Good for you. There are numerous women who have, but I’m glad you’re not one of them.

The problem, however, with this tweet is of course the second sentence. Lucy seems to be saying that either is the abuse imagined, i.e. that the recipients interpret the abuse as sexist while it is actually just for laughs or something. It is a little tricky to treat death and rape threats as funny jokes, but I suppose if you’re naive enough you could manage it. The other option is that the abuse women receive online is caused by women assuming these people are misogynists, therefore the sexism is really the victim’s fault for being so uppity. The classic victim blaming that we so often see of rape victims.

As well as the victim-blaming implied in the second sentence, this is good example of the point I am trying to make: just because you have not experienced something or have not felt a particular way in a situation, it doesn’t mean that other people haven’t.

Note that all the arguments I make in this post can be applied to Rebecca Watson’s experiences as well.


The Male Privilege Checklist is copied from Barry Deutsch’s site, where he explains the reasons for compiling it:

In 1990, Wellesley College professor Peggy McIntosh wrote an essay called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. McIntosh observes that whites in the U.S. are “taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” To illustrate these invisible systems, McIntosh wrote a list of 26 invisible privileges whites benefit from.

As McIntosh points out, men also tend to be unaware of their own privileges as men. In the spirit of McIntosh’s essay, I thought I’d compile a list similar to McIntosh’s, focusing on the invisible privileges benefiting men.


Thanks again to Corinne Zimmerman for inspiring this post.

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